Who Do We Serve? (Romans 6:12-23)

romans 6v14 grace 04

What do you think would be the best job in the world?

Sometimes I like to ask younger people what they want to do when they grow up or leave school. They sometimes give answers like a police officer, ballet dancer, secret agent, footballer, or a whole range of other things. I wonder, though, no matter how old we are, what your ideal job would be. What do you reckon would be the best job in the world?

I am also curious what you think the worst job in the world might be. There used to be a television show called Dirty Jobs where the show’s presenter would talk to people who had some of the most disgusting work you could imagine, and then gave that job a try. Some of the worst jobs he looked at included a sewer inspector, a cow inseminator, a concrete chipper, and a snake researcher who would squeeze out the contents of a snake’s stomach to examine their diet. What is the worst job you can think of?

Now, imagine your life if this was your job. Every day you would get out of bed to go to the worst work you can think of. What would that be like for you? Would you continue doing that job because that is all you know? What if someone offered you the best job you can think of? Would you decide that the job offer must be too good to be true? Would you not want to risk giving up your old job in case it didn’t work out? Would you continue to go back, day after day, to the same dirty, gross work? Or would you take the opportunity and accept the job that had been offered to you?

We can react negatively to Paul’s use of the word slave in Romans 6:12-23, but we need to remember that Paul was writing in a different social context. We reject slavery because it abuses people’s fundamental human rights. We condemn it because it exploits and devalues people who have been made in God’s image and for whom Jesus gave his life. When Paul refers to slavery in the New Testament, I do not believe he is arguing that slavery is an acceptable practice. In Paul’s time it was part of their culture. Today, thankfully, we know better. As we read Romans 6:12-23, we can still learn something from what Paul wrote because, as he explains in verse 19, he uses the practice of slavery as an illustration to teach us something about what it means to live in the reality of God’s grace.

One important difference between slavery in Paul’s time and the way we work today is that slaves didn’t have regular working hours. They weren’t casual, part-time or even full-time employees who could go home at the end of their working day. Slaves were in their situation all day, every day, often for their entire lives. When Paul writes about slavery, he is referring to something that impacted people’s entire existence and defined their identity, belonging and purpose. He wasn’t just talking about a job – he was referring to a way of life.

Paul draws a sharp contrast between two ways of living which is even more dramatic that the contrast between the best and worst jobs we can imagine. On the one hand is a life that is dominated and controlled by sin. Paul doesn’t just think of ‘sin’ as doing something wrong, the way we sometimes do. Instead, he uses words like ‘impurity’ and ‘lawlessness’ (v19 NLT), ‘ashamed’ and ‘death’ (v21 NIV). This gives us a broader understanding of sin as those things in our lives that make us unclean or dirty, that bring shame on us and ultimately take life from us emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, or physically.

In sharp contrast Paul also describes what it means to be a slave to righteousness (v18). This sounds like a contradiction, because when Paul writes about being set free from slavery to sin (vv18,22 NLT) we would assume that people who have been liberated are no longer slaves. This is where we need to remember that Paul seems to be thinking of something that is part of our lives every hour of every day, not just a casual or part-time job. When we become ‘slaves to righteous living’ (v18 NLT), this righteousness becomes part of our being in which we constantly live. ‘Righteous living’ isn’t just about our behaviours or actions. It is who we are as people who have been made right through faith in Jesus.

In the same way that I asked you if you would accept the best job in the world if you had been working in the worst job in the world, Paul is asking his readers if they want to give themselves to righteousness if they had up to that point been working in sin’s household. As we have seen, Paul connects sin with shame, being unclean or dirty, and death. He then describes the qualities of righteous living as holiness and eternal life (vv19,22). This holiness is a big concept and carries with it a range of different meanings. It means to be pure, clean, uncontaminated, set apart for God, or sanctified. It means receiving God’s holiness as a gift and growing to be more like God because one of God’s essential characteristics is holiness. Becoming slaves to righteous living isn’t about following a set of rules or trying harder to be a ‘good’ or ‘nice’ person. Righteous living that leads to holiness is more like having all the filth washed off us when we have spent our working lives as a sewer inspector, and being made clean from all the shame and dirt we used to live in as slaves to sin. The righteousness that leads to holiness is, in Paul’s thinking, living our entire lives in the goodness of God which is reflected through our lives in everything we do and say.

We can live in this righteousness because Jesus has set us free from sin. When Paul writes, ‘now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you’ (v17 NLT) he is talking about faith in the gospel of Jesus (see Romans 1:5). We are only able to ‘choose to obey God’ (v16 NLT) or ‘offer’ ourselves to the ‘obedience’ of faith (v16 NIV) because Jesus has liberated us from slavery to sin through his life, death and resurrection for us. Slaves had no choice about who they served. They were bought and sold like cattle. As people who have been set free from slavery to sin when Jesus redeemed us or bought us back by giving his life for us on the cross, now we are free to give ourselves and our lives to either sin or righteousness.

We were trapped in shame, dirt, and death because of the debt of our sin. Jesus paid our debt in full by his death on the cross, so now we are free to choose. Do we want to go back to the worst job in the world? Or do we want to step in faith into our most ideal job? Will we go back to slavery to sin with the shame, dirt, and death that it brings? Or will we walk in the obedience of faith into a new reality which gives us holiness and a life that is stronger than death?

More to think about & discuss:

  • What do you think would be the best job in the world? Why do you think it would be so good?
  • What do you think would be the worst job in the world? Why do you think it would be so bad?
  • If you were working in the worst job in the world and someone offered you the best job in the world, would you accept it? Explain why you would do that…
  • Why do you think Paul used the illustration of ‘slavery’ for living in either sin or righteous living? What might be some of the problems with this illustration in our cultural context? What might be another way that Paul could illustrate the same idea to people of our time?
  • Paul contrasts a life of sin with shame, dirt, and death, with righteous living that brings holiness and eternal life. Which sounds better to you? Do you think it might be easier to live in one or the other? Can you explain why you think that…?
  • Why might people find it hard to leave a bad job for a better one? What does that tell us about why some people might find it hard to leave a life of sin for a life of righteousness?
  • What do you imagine a life of righteous living might look like?
  • We are able to live in either sin or righteousness because Jesus has redeemed and liberated us through his life, death and resurrection for us. Why do you think this message of freedom can be such an important part of the gospel of Jesus?
  • As a community of faith, how can we help each other live in righteousness that leads to holiness and eternal life? How might you be able to help someone do that this week?

You can also find a video version of this message by following this link: https://youtu.be/wclr5JQBBc0

God bless!

Persistent in Prayer (Luke 18:1-8)

Luke 18v1 persistant prayer 01

When I was serving as a pastor in Lutheran schools, there were times when I would be teaching a class and students would ask me for things such as going to their locker, getting a drink, sitting with their friend, and so on. If my answer was ‘no’ it usually wouldn’t take long before they would come and ask me again. If my reply was still ‘no’ they would come back to me again and again in the hope that I would give them what they were asking for. I wondered sometimes whether my answer of ‘no’ was interpreted as ‘not now, but if you come back enough times you’ll get what you’re asking for.’

These experiences in the classroom, and more recently as a parent, helps me to understand the perspective of the judge in Jesus’ story. The widow kept coming back to him, asking him for the same thing, until she got what she wanted. The big difference between the widow and the students in my classes was that their requests were usually for things to make their life easier or more convenient. The widow in the story, however, was asking for justice.

We don’t know exactly what the ‘justice’ was that the widow was asking for from the judge. What that does, though, is give us room to read the injustices that we experience into Jesus’ story to help make it our story. In some way, though, the widow had been wronged. Something had happened to her or been done to her which was unjust and not right. She was looking for someone to make the wrong she had experienced in her life right again. Her desire for justice was a hope that someone with more authority than she had would do for her what she couldn’t do for herself and make right the wrongs that had been done to her.

There are times in our lives when we can probably identify what she was going through. We all witness or experience wrongs of one kind or another. This is because the world is not the way God intended it to be. When we read the creation story from Genesis 1, at the end of each day (however you want to interpret that period of time) God saw that what he had created was good. When we look at the world now, though, it seems a long way from that goodness. We can see conflicts and natural disasters happening all over the world. Closer to home, our nation is suffering from social, cultural and environmental wrongs. Our relationships can go wrong for a range of reasons, either what we have done or has been done to us. Even within ourselves, there are things that are wrong that might not be our fault, but still take life from us and from others. Wherever we look, we can see that there is something wrong with the world in which we live.

This wasn’t how God intended life to be, so in Jesus he did what was needed to set the wrong things right again. This is one way we can understand the biblical role of a judge. When we read the Book of Judges from the Old Testament, we can see that they were not people who sentenced offenders in a court of law. Instead, the Old Testament judges were people God raised up to right the wrongs that were being done to God’s people. This flows from an understanding of God as judge, who makes the wrong things in the world right again through his justice, grace and love.

Ultimately, God establishes his reign of justice in the world through Jesus. When he was born, he entered this world-gone-wrong and took its wrongs on himself. Jesus embraced everything that is wrong with us, our relationships and our world on himself, and takes it to the cross where he puts it all to death. This is one way of understanding the idea that Jesus takes away the sin of the world – he overcomes all that is wrong with this existence in his crucifixion, even death itself.

Jesus then restores us and all creation to its original state of being good and right in his resurrection. When Jesus was raised to new life, he triumphed over the wrongs of the world and set things right again so that we can live in right relationships with God, ourselves, other people and all of creation. This is what is called ‘the righteousness of God’ – his gift to us of making everything that is wrong in us right again through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We can also call this God’s justice as Jesus removes the wrongs that infect us and all creation and fills us with God’s goodness.

As long as we live in this world we will still encounter its wrongs in one way or another. That is why Jesus encourages his followers to ‘pray and never give up’ (v1). The widow in his story kept asking the unjust judge for justice because she believed that he could make the wrongs in her life right again. Jesus is encouraging us to believe that God is good and just, that he can and will bring about justice for us as well. Jesus is contrasting the character of the unjust judge with our just God and saying that if the judge in the story ended up providing justice for the widow, how much more will God bring justice for us when we look to him for it?

Where do you see or experience the injustice of this world? In what ways are the wrongs of this world robbing you of the life God has for you in Jesus? God can and will bring justice to the world and to our lives. In Jesus, God embraces all that is wrong with us and our world and makes us right again through his grace.

When we believe that, when we trust that good news, then asking God to set the wrong things right again will be a natural thing for us to do. Things are what they are, but they don’t have to continue to be that way. In Jesus, God makes all things new and sets things right again. This faith gives us good reason to always pray for God’s justice to reign in us and never give up.